The End of a Presidential Launchpad

It was an inauspicious debut, to say the least. In February 1975, a little-known Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter showed up in Des Moines, Iowa, to launch an unlikely presidential campaign. His team rented a hotel ballroom and bought enough food for a crowd of 200 people. Three appeared.

So Carter began working on the streets and in the shops. Gerald Rafshoon, who was her media adviser, recalled a story that later became famous the other day. “Carter walks into a barbershop and says, ‘My name is Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president,’” Rafshoon told me. “And the hairdresser said, ‘Yeah, me and the guys laughed about that.'”

However, from that modest beginning, something really big grew. For the next year, Carter virtually lived in Iowa and defeated every other candidate in the caucuses that followed, propelling him to the White House. Now, almost half a century later, the Iowa launch pad is about to close. With it will go the romance of the long-shot candidate who goes door to door in the field to rise out of obscurity and reach the heights of American politics.

At President Biden’s urging, the Democratic National Committee is tweaking its presidential primary schedule to end Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status. The party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee approved a schedule Friday that places South Carolina first, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada and then Georgia and Michigan, eliminating Iowa from the starting lineup. For the changes to be adopted, the full DNC still needs to sign off early next year.

It’s unclear if the Republicans will follow suit, but as my colleague Trip Gabriel wrote, “one of the most idiosyncratic and consequential contests of the American election has come to its probable end.”

Carter’s breakthrough in 1976 spawned generations of campaigns by little-known candidates hoping to replicate his stunning success. Iowa had never been a force in primary politics up to that point, but Carter’s team, realizing that George McGovern stood out from a second-place finish in the state in 1972, decided to invest time and resources there.

It was a humiliating experience. Getting a reporter to show up to an event was a huge win. “Anyone with a notepad and a tape recorder would send us into ecstasy,” Carter recalled to Jonathan Alter for his biography “His Very Best of Him.” But out of the blue, Carter got 28 percent of the vote on January 19, 1976, placing him second to the “uncommitted” at 37 percent but ahead of all the flesh-and-blood candidates. He then won the New Hampshire primary that followed.

Iowa was a testing ground for most of the candidates that followed. When George HW Bush defeated Ronald Reagan there in the 1980 Republican race, he ecstatically declared that he had “the Big Mo,” or drive, only to later fall in New Hampshire. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated frontrunner Hillary Clinton, proving that a black candidate could win in a predominantly white state and lending credibility to her underappreciated campaign.

Iowa chose the last Democratic nominee nearly twice since the original 1976 race, with the exception of 1988, when Richard Gephardt won the caucuses only to lose the nomination to Michael Dukakis, and 1992, when Iowa Senator Tom Harkin himself , ran as a candidate. On the Republican side, he has been less influential. Incumbents running for reelection aside, no winner from Iowa has clinched the Republican nomination since George W. Bush in 2000. But it has always played a role in selecting the field.

One candidate who didn’t particularly like being selected was a senator and later vice president named Joseph R. Biden Jr. In 2008, Biden polled less than 1 percent of the vote in Iowa and dropped out. In 2020, he finished a humiliating fourth place when he was the presumptive favourite, though he eventually rallied.

It’s no surprise, then, that Biden doesn’t feel overly committed to claiming Iowa for the first ballot. South Carolina, his choice to open the contest in 2024, is where he turned his 2020 campaign around.

It didn’t help that the Iowa Democratic Party’s 2020 app-based recount was so unsuccessful that a winner didn’t emerge for days. (Under his complicated rules, Pete Buttigieg barely edged out Bernie Sanders for most state delegate equivalents, the key metric.)

And that’s the end of the Jimmy Carter scenario, at least for the Democrats. “When we decided to do it, it was one of the smartest things we did,” Rafshoon told me. Now, that’s just a story in the history books.

Related: The Democrats’ new primary schedule indicates that Biden plans to seek re-election.

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